Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

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by Alan Weisman

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A powerful investigation into the chances for humanity's future from the author of the bestseller The World Without Us.

In his bestselling book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman considered how the Earth could heal and even refill empty niches if relieved of humanity's constant pressures. Behind that groundbreaking thought experiment was his

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A powerful investigation into the chances for humanity's future from the author of the bestseller The World Without Us.

In his bestselling book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman considered how the Earth could heal and even refill empty niches if relieved of humanity's constant pressures. Behind that groundbreaking thought experiment was his hope that we would be inspired to find a way to add humans back to this vision of a restored, healthy planet-only in harmony, not mortal combat, with the rest of nature.

But with a million more of us every 4½ days on a planet that's not getting any bigger, and with our exhaust overheating the atmosphere and altering the chemistry of the oceans, prospects for a sustainable human future seem ever more in doubt. For this long awaited follow-up book, Weisman traveled to more than 20 countries to ask what experts agreed were probably the most important questions on Earth—and also the hardest: How many humans can the planet hold without capsizing? How robust must the Earth's ecosystem be to assure our continued existence? Can we know which other species are essential to our survival? And, how might we actually arrive at a stable, optimum population, and design an economy to allow genuine prosperity without endless growth?

Weisman visits an extraordinary range of the world's cultures, religions, nationalities, tribes, and political systems to learn what in their beliefs, histories, liturgies, or current circumstances might suggest that sometimes it's in their own best interest to limit their growth. The result is a landmark work of reporting: devastating, urgent, and, ultimately, deeply hopeful.

By vividly detailing the burgeoning effects of our cumulative presence, Countdown reveals what may be the fastest, most acceptable, practical, and affordable way of returning our planet and our presence on it to balance. Weisman again shows that he is one of the most provocative journalists at work today, with a book whose message is so compelling that it will change how we see our lives and our destiny.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this follow-up to The World Without Us, journalist Weisman visits more than 20 countries to explore four urgent questions. How many people can our planet hold? Is it in our own best interest to limit population growth? Which species are essential to our survival? And how can we design a prosperous economy that does not depend on endless growth and consumption? Weisman argues that this will be the century in which we must manage our population, “or nature will do it for us in the form of famine, thirst... crashing ecosystems, and wars over dwindling resources.” To seek answers, he visits some of the planet’s most overcrowded regions, including the Philippines, Niger, and India—with its “archetypal new megalopolis,” Mumbai, swollen beyond comprehension at 21 million. He also visits countries that have slowed their population growth (Iran and Thailand), and those whose populations are dwindling, such as Japan. Weisman interviews Catholic clerics; Buddhist monks; biologists, including Paul Erlich (The Population Bomb); physicists, demographers; and others. He also analyzes the repercussions of China’s one-child policy; the Haber-Bosch fertilization method that led to higher food yields; and the chronic malnourishment afflicting one billion people today. Provocative and sobering, this vividly reported book raises profound concerns about our future. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Journalist Weisman (The World Without Us) here highlights the critical connection between human population growth and ecological degradation, a subject that's not on the table at environmental summit meetings. The author takes up the issue popularized by Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. Human proliferation (the global population presently numbers seven billion, plus 220,000 more births per day) is a major factor in resource depletion, pollution, and climate change. Even "green revolution" hybrid crops have limitations, and climate change is beginning to effect yields, so feeding a projected peak population of ten billion sustainably looks impossible. Weisman traveled widely while researching this book, investigating the religious, cultural, and political influences that produce large families and how attitudes about family size might be changing. He concludes that education and empowerment of women, along with access to reliable contraception, is beginning to limit family size and slow the global birthrate. The process is uneven: the transition has already happened in some nations, particularly as people continue to migrate from farms to cities. VERDICT The issue of human population control needs to be part of environmental collections, as it is key to the future quality of the biosphere and human lives. Recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]—David R. Conn, formerly with Surrey Libs., BC
From the Publisher
Finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize

Finalist, Books for a Better Life Award

"Urgent, eloquent, harrowing and yet hopeful. Everywhere, he finds the most fascinating person in a thousand miles, and makes a story out of what they tell us. Please read this book. You will weep and yet be cheered." — Louise Erdrich, author of The Round House"

Unflinching and ready for anything, Weisman's Countdown tackles the biggest question facing not only us, but every other living thing on earth. How many people can there be on the earth? Written with extraordinary clarity, without all the arm-waving and doomsaying that seems to kill the conversation, his firsthand tour of the globe offers both worst case scenarios and the most hopeful futures we can imagine." — Craig Childs, author of Apocalyptic Planet"

Weisman offers heart-rending portrayals of nations already suffering demographic collapse... A realistic, vividly detailed exploration of the greatest problem facing our species." — Kirkus (starred review)"

Spirited descriptions, a firm grasp of complex material, and a bomb defuser's steady precision make for a riveting read... Weisman's cogent and forthright global inquiry, a major work, delineates how education, women's equality, and family planning can curb poverty, thirst, hunger, and environmental destruction. Rigorous and provoking, Countdown will generate numerous media appearances for Weisman and spur many a debate." Booklist (starred review)"

Provocative and sobering, this vividly reported book raises profound concerns about our future." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Winner of the Best Book Award from Population Institute"

A frenzied barnstormer of a book.... Countdown is a chaotic stew of big stories, bold ideas and conflicted characters, punctuated by moments of quiet grace—just like our people-packed planet." — Scientific American"

A hugely impressive piece of reportage, a cacophony of voices from across the world." — Washington Post"

Rousing, urgent.... By exploring and integrating the lessons from cultures the world over, Weisman has been able to provide a blueprint that will ultimately benefit the planet as a whole. "Countdown" is a timely, essential, and hopeful work - one that suggests compassion in place of consumption and promises a return to an equilibrium that will prove a veritable windfall for humans, non-humans, and ecosystems alike." — The Oregonian"

Countdown is a gripping narrative by a fair-minded investigative journalist who interviewed dozens of scientists and experts in various fields in 21 countries. He also scoured the literature to deliver not so much a doomsday narrative but a warning followed by the practical solution employed by various countries to get control of their population." — Wall Street Journal "

He makes a strong case for slowing global population growth-and even for reducing overall population numbers-as a prerequisite for achieving a sustainable future...Weisman's book...offers hope... Weisman's emphasis on expanding access to contraception as the next-best strategy is both pragmatic and workable, as past efforts have shown. It is to be hoped that his message may be heeded sooner rather than later." — Nature"

Weisman's stories—from his travel to contemporary Israel and Palestine, where reproducing is a form of warfare, to histories of family planning in Asia and South America—are fascinating and often chilling." — Slate"

Weisman reminds us that when the experts are worried, we should pay attention." — Los Angeles Times"

Weisman's gift as a writer with a love of science is in drawing links for readers on how everything in our world is connected - in this case, population, consumption and the environment.... The pleasure in reading Countdown is in the interplay of interviews with experts and with everyday working people around the world, all trying to figure out the size of family they want." — Toronto Star"

[Weisman] found vivid, real-world portraits of what overpopulation portends." — Men's Journal"

Alan Weisman's Countdown is rich, subtle and elaborate. His magisterial work should be the first port of call for anyone interested in the relationship between population and the environment...It's a tightly argued, fast-paced adventure that crosses the plant in search of contrasts." — Literary Review"

Countdown converts globetrotting research into flowing journalism, highlighting a simple truth: there are, quite plainly, too many of us. A world that understands Weisman's words will understand the pressing need for change." — Bill Streever, author of Cold and Heat"

While it is very much an alarming assessment, it is not without some genuine hope...It's a must read for all those who are concerned about the human prospect." — Robert Walker, president of the Population Institute"

Weisman's anecdotes and explanations...draw a clear picture.... Countdown asks the hard questions." — Shelf Awareness

Kirkus Reviews
Following up The World Without Us (2007), which explored how the Earth might heal from our depredations if humans became extinct, journalist Weisman writes a more conventional but equally astute analysis of how humans might avoid extinction. Overconsumption, not overpopulation, will destroy the planet, but no one except enthusiasts expects us to renounce our meat, cars, single-family houses and air conditioning anytime soon. After traveling the world, Weisman delivers a dozen often painful journalistic essays on efforts to answer four questions: How many people can the Earth hold at a tolerable standard of living? How much ecosystem do humans need; at what point do we eradicate an organism our existence depends on? Today every nation depends on growth for prosperity. How can we design an economy for a stable population? Is there an acceptable way to convince people of every religion, culture and political system that it's in their interest to stop having so many children? Despite the maxim that poor people yearn for huge families, that turns out to be true only for poor men. Poor women mostly yearn for birth control, and Weisman offers heart-rending portrayals of nations already suffering demographic collapse (Pakistan, the Philippines, Uganda and Niger are the worst) and admirable individuals and organizations struggling to help despite little support from national governments or American aid. "I don't want to cull anyone alive today," writes the author. "I wish every human now on the planet a long, healthy life. But either we take control ourselves, and humanely bring our numbers down by recruiting few new members of the human race to take our places, or nature's going to hand out a pile of pink slips." Some news is hopeful, and a few nations have taken action, so this is not a jeremiad but a realistic, vividly detailed exploration of the greatest problem facing our species.

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Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.56(d)

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Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

By Alan Weisman, Adam Grupper

Hachette Audio

Copyright © 2013 Alan Weisman Adam Grupper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-09775-8


A Weary Land of Four Questions

i. Battle of the Babies

A cold January afternoon in Jerusalem, late Friday before the Jewish Sabbath. The winter sun, nearing the horizon, turns the gilded Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount to blood-orange. From the east, where the muezzin's afternoon call to Muslim prayer has just ended on the Mount of Olives, the golden Dome is suffused in a smudged pinkish corona of dust and traffic fumes.

At this hour, the Temple Mount itself, the holiest site in Judaism, is one of the quieter spots in this ancient city, empty but for a few scholars in overcoats, hurrying with their books across a chilly, cypress-shaded plaza. Once, King Solomon's original tabernacle stood here. It held the Ark of the Covenant, containing stone tablets on which Moses was believed to have incised the Ten Commandments. In 586 BCE, invading Babylonians destroyed it all and took the Jewish people captive. A half-century later, Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia, liberated them to return and rebuild their temple.

Around 19 CE, the Temple Mount was renovated and fortified with a surrounding wall by King Herod, only to be demolished again by the Romans within ninety years. Although exile from the Holy Land occurred both before and after, this Roman destruction of Jerusalem's Second Temple most famously symbolizes the Diaspora that scattered Jews across Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.

Today, a remaining fragment of the Second Temple's sixty-foot-high perimeter in Jerusalem's Old City, known as the Western (or "Wailing") Wall, is an obligatory pilgrimage for Jews visiting Israel. Yet, lest they inadvertently tread where the Holy of Holies once stood, an official rabbinical decree prohibits Jews from ascending to the Temple Mount itself. Although it is at times defied, and exceptions can be arranged, this explains why the Temple Mount is administered by Muslims, who also hold it sacred. From here, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have journeyed one night upon a winged steed all the way to Seventh Heaven and back. Only Mecca and Medina, Muhammad's birthplace and burial site, are considered holier. In a rare agreement between Israel and Islam, Muslims alone may pray on this hallowed ground, which they call al-Haram al-Sharif.

But not as many Muslims come here as they once did. Before September 2000, they flocked by the thousands, lining up at a fountain ringed by stone benches to perform purification ablutions before entering the crimson-carpeted, marbled al- Aqsa Mosque across the plaza from the Dome of the Rock. Especially, they came on Friday at noon for the imam's weekly sermon, a discourse on current events as well as the Qur'an.

One frequent topic back then, recalls Khalil Toufakji, people jokingly called "Yasser Arafat's biology bomb." Except it was no joke. As Toufakji, today a Palestinian demographer with Jerusalem's Arab Studies Society, remembers: "We were taught in the mosque, in school, and at home to have lots of children, for lots of reasons. In America or Europe, if there's a problem, you can call the police. In a place with no laws to safeguard you, you rely on your family."

He sighs, stroking his neat gray moustache; his own father was a policeman. "Here, you need a big family to feel protected." It's even worse in Gaza, he adds. One Hamas leader there had fourteen children and four wives. "Our mentality goes back to the Bedouins. If you have a big enough tribe, everyone's afraid of you."

Another reason for the large families, Toufakji agrees, is definitely no joke to Israelis. The Palestine Liberation Organization's best weapon, its leader Arafat liked to say, was the Palestinian womb.

During Ramadan, Toufakji and some of his own thirteen siblings would be among the half-million worshippers overflowing al-Aqsa Mosque, spilling onto al-Haram al-Sharif's stone plaza. That was before the day in September 2000 when former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon paid a visit to the Temple Mount, escorted by a thousand Israeli riot police. At the time, Sharon was a candidate for prime minister. He had once been found willfully negligent by an Israeli commission for not protecting more than a thousand Palestinian civilian refugees massacred by Christian Phalangists during Lebanon's 1982 civil war, while his occupying Israeli forces stood by. Sharon's trip to the Temple Mount, intended to assert Israelis' historical right to it, ignited demonstrations and rock throwing, which were met by tear gas and rubber bullets. When stones from the Temple Mount were hurled at Jews worshipping at the Western Wall below, the ammunition turned live.

The mayhem soon spiraled into hundreds of deaths in Jerusalem and beyond, in what became known as the Second Intifada. Eventually came suicide bombings—and then, especially after Sharon was elected prime minister, years of mutual retaliation for shootings, massacres, rocket attacks, and more suicide bombs, until Israel began walling itself in.

A barrier of towering concrete and wire more than two hundred kilometers long now nearly encircles the West Bank—except for where it thrusts deeply across the Green Line that delineates captured territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War with its surrounding Arab adversaries. In places it zigzags through cities like Bethlehem and Greater Jerusalem, curling back on itself to isolate individual neighborhoods, cutting Palestinians off not just from Israel but from each other and from their fields and orchards, and prompting charges that its purpose is to annex territory and seize wells as much as to guarantee security.

It also stops most Palestinians from reaching the al-Aqsa Mosque, except if they live in Israel or the parts of East Jerusalem within the security barrier. Yet of those, often only Palestinian men over age forty-five are allowed by Israeli police past the metal detectors at Temple Mount gates. Officially, this is to forestall any Arab youths tempted again to stone worshipping Jews—especially foreign Jewish tourists, as they tuck written prayers into crevices between the Western Wall's massive blocks of pale limestone rising above the adjacent plaza.

That custom is particularly popular as Sabbath begins, but in recent years, getting anywhere near the Western Wall on Friday at sundown has become a challenge even for Jews. Unless you're a haredi, and a male.

The Hebrew word haredi means, literally, "fear and trembling." In today's Israel, it refers to ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose dour dress and fervid quaking before God hearken to bygone centuries and distant lands where their ancestors lived during two millennia of Diaspora. To the alarm of non-haredi Jews, the Western Wall has been effectively usurped and converted into a haredi synagogue. On Shabbat, tens of thousands of bowing, trembling, rejoicing, chanting, praising, praying black-frocked men in broad- rimmed hats and ritual fringes engulf it, save for a small fenced section reserved for women—that is, for women who dare approach it. Females who insist on a Jewish woman's right to don prayer shawls and phylacteries—or the ultimate haredi horror: to actually touch and read from a Torah scroll—may be spat upon by haredi men, who have flung chairs at the brazen blasphemers, and be called whores by screaming rabbis who try to drown out their Sabbath songs.

Women, extremist haredim believe, should be home readying the Shabbat meal for their pious men and their burgeoning families. Although still a minority, Israel's haredim are relentlessly bent on changing that status. Their simple tactic: procreation. Haredi families average nearly seven children, and frequently hit double digits. Their multiplying offspring are considered both the solution to modern Jews, who defile their religion, and as the best defense against Palestinians, who threaten to outproliferate Jews in their historic homeland.

The Jerusalem daily Haaretz reports a haredi man who boasts 450 descendents. Their soaring numbers force Israeli politicians to include haredi parties in coalitions that rule Israeli governments. Such clout has won the ultra-Orthodox privileges that elicit howls from other Israelis: exemption from military service (supposedly, they defend Judaism by incessant study of Torah) and a government allowance for each Israeli child brought into the world. Until 2009, this subsidy actually rose for each new birth, until the cost of the escalating demographics shocked even conservative Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who modified it to a flat rate. Any dampening effect on haredi reproduction is not yet evident at the Western Wall, where thousands of young boys with black yarmulkes and bouncing sidelocks swirl around their dancing, bearded fathers.

A waxing moon, yellow as Jerusalem limestone, climbs high above the walled Old City, and haredim begin to stream homeward—on foot; no motorized conveyance allowed on Shabbat—to their pregnant wives and their daughters. Most head into Mea She'arim, one of Jerusalem's biggest neighborhoods, which is visibly deteriorating under the pressure of so many people. Torah scholarship pays little or nothing; haredi wives mostly work at whatever jobs they can sandwich between child-rearing, and more than one-third of the families are below the poverty line. Vestibules and staircases of shabby high-rises are jammed with baby strollers. The air whiffs of overflowing garbage, overstressed sewers, and—surprising for a place where no vehicles can circulate on Shabbat—diesel exhaust. Because many haredim insist that the Israel Electric Corporation's nonstop coal-fired plants commit a sacrilege by working through Sabbath, before sundown they crank up hundreds of portable generators in Mea She'arim basements to keep the lights on. The traditional z'mirot heard around Sabbath tables are sung over their dull roar.

Four kilometers north of Mea She'arim, the land rises into limestone ridges. A hill just across the Green Line, Ramat Shlomo, is the site of an ancient quarry that provided the nearly thirty-foot foundation slabs Herod used to build the Second Temple's wall. In 1970, not long after the area was captured, Israel planted a forest there. Unlike the early Jewish National Fund forests—regimental rows of Australian eucalyptus or monocultured Aleppo pines, financed with coins saved by Jewish children worldwide in blue JNF collection tins—this was a mixed woodland that included some native oaks, conifers, and terebinths. The young forest was declared a nature preserve, a designation that Palestinians protested, claiming the real intention was to prevent a nearby Arab village, Shuafat, from growing. Their suspicion was confirmed when, in 1990, the forest was bulldozed to make way for a new haredi Jerusalem neighborhood—or new West Bank settlement, depending on who's describing it.

"Shaved the whole hill," admits Ramat Shlomo settler and Hasidic rabbi Dudi Zilbershlag. A founder of Haredim for the Environment, a nonprofit organization whose name also translates as Fear for the Environment, he regrets that. "But then," he adds, brightening, "we replanted."

In his living room, Zilbershlag sips rose hip tea, surrounded by glass-fronted hardwood bookshelves that hold rows of leather-bound Kabbalah and Talmudic literature. One case is devoted to silver menorahs, Shabbat candlesticks, and kiddush cups. A robust man in his fifties with a wide smile, thick gray payos curling out from either side of his black skullcap, and a gray beard reaching the black vest he wears over his white shirt and ritual fringes, he is also the founder of Israel's largest charity: Meir Panim, a soup kitchen network. His ultra-Orthodox environmental group mainly focuses on urban issues: noise, air pollution, congested roads, open burning of trash, and ubiquitous junk food wrappers strewn through packed haredi neighborhoods. But his own interest goes beyond, to the preservation of nature.

"According to Gematria," he explains—Kabbalist numerology—"the words God and nature are equivalents. So nature is the same as God."

You don't need miracles, he says, to know that God exists. "I see God in nature's details: trees, valleys, sky, and sun." Yet in a mystery that perhaps only a Kabbalist can resolve, he notes that Jewish survival has depended on miracles involving God's dominion over, and even suspension of, natural law. "A classic example is when Israel left Egypt, He made the seas part."

That act was preceded by other unnatural miracles: water turning to blood, swarms of frogs in the desert, night that lasted for three days, hail that selectively battered Egyptian crops, and death that slaughtered only Egyptian livestock and Egyptian firstborn children. All these divine interventions are commemorated in the Passover seder, which begins with Jewish children asking four traditional questions about the evening's symbolism. The answers, given over the course of the meal, recount Israel's miraculous deliverance from slavery.

In each corner of Dudi Zilbershlag's home is a reminder—a stroller, a playpen, a crib—of children who have asked these questions: he and his wife, Rivka, had eleven themselves, and they expect to be grandparents many times over. Yet nothing is ever certain in this mythic land, where tension between two peoples who claim it crackles the atmosphere. As pressures and stakes rise daily—and sheer numbers, with each trying to outpopulate the other—so does a reality that has begun to dawn on Jews and Arabs alike, spanning both sides' political and religious spectra:

In historic Palestine—that is, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River in the disputed lands of Israel and Palestine, a distance of barely fifty miles—there are now nearly 12 million people.

In the aftermath of World War I, the British, who governed Palestine under an international mandate, believed that this land, much of it desert, could sustain 2.5 million at most. During the 1930s, to persuade a doubtful Crown that it should be a homeland for Jews, Zionist David Ben-Gurion argued that Jewish determination and ingenuity to transform what the British considered a backwater should not be discounted.

"No square inch of land shall we neglect; not one source of water shall we fail to tap; not a swamp that we shall not drain; not a sand dune that we shall not fructify; not a barren hill that we shall not cover with trees; nothing shall we leave untouched," wrote Israel's future first prime minister. Ben-Gurion was referring to the carrying capacity of Palestine's soil and water resources to support human beings—both Jew and Arab, who in early writings he imagined coexisting.

He was convinced that the land could support 6 million people. Later, as prime minister, Ben-Gurion would offer prizes to Israeli "heroines" who had ten or more children (an offer eventually discontinued because so many winners were Arab women). Today, Israel's haredi population doubles every seventeen years. At the same time, with half of all Palestinians just entering or nearing their reproductive years, the Arab population of historic Palestine—Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip—could surpass that of Israeli Jews by 2016.

At that point, projections of which side will win this demographic derby—or lose, depending on point of view—get hazy. Historically, much of Israel's growth has depended on immigration of Jews from elsewhere. More than a million Russians arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the trend of Jews making aliyah to Israel has slowed dramatically. Far more Jews now move from Israel to the United States than vice versa. Nevertheless, as the birthrate of haredim increases exponentially, Jews may retake the majority in the 2020s. At least for a while.

Even more important than who's leading is something neither Jewish nor Arab demographers deny: If things continue as they're headed, by the middle of this century the number of humans jammed between the sea and the Jordan will nearly double, to at least 21 million.

Even Jesus's miracle with loaves and fishes might not come close to slaking their needs. Such relentless arithmetic begs a new set of four questions:


Excerpted from Countdown by Alan Weisman, Adam Grupper. Copyright © 2013 Alan Weisman Adam Grupper. Excerpted by permission of Hachette Audio.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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